30 January, 2008

Thai prawns to blow your socks off











Well, I really should be getting Avery to bed (she's wrapped up, post-bath, in her blue jammies, blue dressing gown, new blue slippers from the enormous sale at the Little White Company), but I invented a shrimp dish tonight that made us curl up our toes and sigh. So I'll share:

Thai Prawns with Coconut Milk
(serves 4)


2 tbsps sunflower or other mild oil
5 cloves garlic
1 small hot red chili
1 large (1-2 inch?) knob ginger, peeled
2 tsps turmeric
1 tsp cumin
juices of 1/2 lemon, 1/2 lime
large handful coriander leaves
large handful parsley leaves
1 red onion, quartered
sea salt
fresh ground black pepper

1 kg king tiger prawns, heads removed

1 soup-size can coconut milk
red pepper flakes to taste

basmati rice for four (put to steam)
tenderstem broccolini to saute in olive oil

4 kaffir lime leaves
12 basil leaves, chiffonade

Probably your prawns will arrive to you frozen. Mine did. If so, place them in a bowl and let them thaw. Save the thawing liquid. If they come with heads, remove them and rinse.

So. Put all the ingredients up to and including the black pepper in a Cuisinart and whizz till a nice paste. You will have to take the lid off and scrape down the sides several times. Next, heat the oil in a heavy skillet or wok and throw all the paste in. Stir round till sizzling, then throw in the prawns. Stir and toss and turn until the prawns are pink all over instead of their original grey, then smack each prawn against the side of the wok and remove to the eventual serving bowl.

Now pour into the wok the prawn thawing liquid, and the coconut milk. Stir over medium heat until bubbling and taste. Add the lime leaves and as many pepper flakes as you need. Leave off the heat while you steam some basmati rice and saute some tenderstem broccolini.

When the rice and broccolini are ready, remove the lime leaves from the sauce and add the prawns. Chiffonade the basil and add to the sauce. Heat over high heat until bubbling, then pour over the rice.

*****************

Here's the $64,000 question. To shell the shrimps before serving or NOT. You could shell them after sauteeing in the paste, before adding to the sauce. If you don't, you'll be left with a most messy but DIVINE dish, and needing a body plate for every two people for the shells and legs. But I worry that shelling them will lose some of the flavour in the sauce. Up to you.

Must get Avery to bed. This dinner we had in the glow of the enormous bouquet of yellow tulips that my sister, brother in law and little niece sent to Avery to congratulate her on finishing her exams. Such a gesture makes any dinner taste better! Anyway, I wanted you to have this recipe in time for your dinner. Nighty-night.

29 January, 2008

The Importance of Being... Wilde!










It was a dream come true for Avery last night: her end-of-exams reward: a trip to the Vaudeville Theatre in the Strand to see "The Importance of Being Earnest," her all-time favourite play. It all began with listening to a performance on tape, in the car on our way to see newborn baby Jane three years ago. I was desperate for something to listen to on the two-hour drive, to keep my mind off the near certainty that I would get lost trying to find the hospital (I did), so I just grabbed the cassettes and we were on our way. Well, it was the perfect entertainment. I can't even remember who read it, but now I am the proud owner of the 1952 classic radio recording starring John Gielgud and Edith Evans. Can't wait to listen to that!

Anyway, since then Avery's read the play a thousand times (has a copy both here in London and in our Connecticut house, so she doesn't get desperate), and adores the copy of Oscar Wilde's "Epigrams" that she found in a dear little bookshop in West Hartford, near my sister's house. Plus she made a special pilgrimage to his house in Dublin. "It was amazing!" she told one of her school interviewers. "There was his house, just as if it were an ordinary building! Only it had a blue plaque, which I love."

So last night we ate an early (and may I say magnificent) dinner of macaroni and cheese (the secret is definitely two-fold, Dairylea, and stir CONSTANTLY with a whisk mind you), bangers and roasted beetroot, and off we went. Arriving early, we were able to see that as usual with the sorts of plays Avery wants to go to, she's the youngest in the audience by about 30 years. And the play was LOVELY. You really must go. Penelope Keith of "To the Manor Born" fame was Lady Bracknell, a gentler, wiser version of the character than Judi Dench's portrayal in the film. And the two young men, Jack and Algernon, were cast a bit to similar to one another for my taste. But Daisy Haggard as Gwendoline was quite perfect, and the SETS! Divinely luxurious. Avery's little face when her favourite lines appeared was worth the whole ticket price: "A handbag!" "Victoria Station: the Brighton line!" She was in absolute heaven. "This makes me all the more determined to be an actress myself," she said. Her plan now is to nobble her teacher gently at acting class on Saturday and see what she needs to do next to make that ambition come true.

Well, a very late night for her, and I confess to sleeping in, in a most extravagant way, this morning. As penance I made one of our crazy juices (it's the only way I'm ever going to eat Tuscan kale or swiss chard, either one, as long as they're masked by beets, carrots and pears) and then a really unctuous soup for lunch. I think I've given you this recipe before, but it bears repeating on a cold January day. Keep in mind: you can use ANY mushrooms, you can use chicken, vegetable or beef stock, you can use Madeira, brandy, cognac or champagne. And you can use whole milk, cream or creme fraiche. It's all these variations that keep me from being at all bored with my admittedly limited cooking repertoire!

Creamy Mushroom Soup
(serves two as a main course)


2 tbsps butter
4 cloves garlic, sliced
1 white or yellow onion, sliced
1 lb mushrooms (I used chestnut today)
1 tsp dried thyme
splash brandy
3 cups beef stock
3 tbsps creme fraiche
juice of half a lemon
Maldon salt to taste

Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan and saute the garlic and onion briefly, then add mushrooms and stir just to coat with butter. Sprinkle with thyme, splash in the brandy and stir just till it nearly evaporates, then cover with beef stock. Simmer until mushrooms are tender, about 25 minutes. Whiz with a hand blender and stir in the creme fraiche and lemon juice. Salt to taste. Voila!

***************

This would be so pretty with a drizzle of extra cream, a sprinkle of chives, but alas I had neither. Nor had I any day-old baguette to make toast to dip in it, which also would be very nice. I'm sure you'll be clever enough to have these extras on hand. As it was, I was content because there's no nicer aroma than cream of mushroom soup, even when it lingers in the house past lunch. It's a lovely scent.

27 January, 2008

plop plop fizz fizz


















Do you remember those old ads on the telly for Alka-Seltzer? Well, forget the plop plop fizz fizz, but OH WHAT A RELIEF IT IS! Exams over. Full stop.

On Friday we dropped Avery off at the exalted, dreaded, anticipated and entirely lovely St Paul's Girls School for her marathon, 6 1/2 hour exam. Her anxiety level was like this: halfway to the school she said mildly, "I'm nervous." Now, in her place I would for one thing not have been able to sleep, wouldn't have wanted breakfast but if I ate it would have come straight back up again, and would be curled in a miserable little ball in the back of the car. Not my intrepid offspring. Nope, nine hours' sleep, stuffed full of apple turnover, blueberries and salami (heavens, could that be true?), and one little vague aside as she approached the ordeal. Oh to be Avery, sometimes!

Well, John and I puttered around looking at our watches and wondering what she was being asked, thinking of all the wonderful exam lore that has been produced during the last month. "Then this girl next to me found out at the last moment that she had turned over two pages of her maths at once and missed TWELVE QUESTIONS!" These sorts of comments are uttered with a mixture of awe, fear and a tinge of smugness. "One girl had to be moved because the roof was leaking over her desk!" So three o'clock found us sheepishly taking our places in the huge phalanx of cool parents waiting for the Actual Sufferers to be reunited with us. In the enormous gymnasium the little things were sitting on the ground with their elderly Sixth Form minders, under paper signs announcing the alphabetical groups, and there was Avery, under a sign that said "Bodwin to Curran." "Look, my name's on the sign!" she said gleefully, as if this was an accomplishment. She appeared to be none the worse for wear, reunited with Jamie at the exit, shrieked and hugged and rocked back and forth. "Wasn't the maths WICKED?"

Well, there you go. All finished, except that two more schools have written to schedule interviews. Fine. But no more exams, no more frantically washing her and all our hands seventeen times a day with antibacterial wipes to ward off the rampant London stomach virus. No more worrying that she gets enough sleep even on a Saturday. No cancelling playdates to observe hideous amounts of exam-prep homework. No more English and maths teachers, who retire on Wednesday. What a relief. Now they can all play.

It's so funny to hear her speak when she emerges from a long British experience. It's not that she speaks with an English accent, although she can and sometimes drops into it if she's on the telephone with an English friend, or wanting to impress with her bilingual status. It's the expressions I notice. I need a long lunch with my friend 6point7 (wait, we just had one! but we didn't talk language), because she can always explain the exact circumstances when certain expressions or words are used. Here are a few I noticed in Avery on Friday. She always says "bit," not "part," as in "there were some really difficult bits." I think "parts" here is used just for raw chicken, and maybe theatre (or would they say "roles"? don't know). And "loads of questions," not "lots of questions." Is "lots" just for auctions here? And "straightaway," not "right away." Those are the things one would have to get just right if one were writing an English novel as an American. But they come second nature to Avery.

The one Britishism that is suddenly getting on our nerves is the insistence on mispronouncing the name of a particular American Presidential candidate. It reminds me of the pronunciation "Los Angeleez." Why? Anyway, here it is "Bear-uck" Obama, with the emphasis on the first syllable. Why on earth? No one in America has taught anyone to pronounce it that way. But this complaint is set against the undeniable superiority of the British news coverage in that they are even bothering to pronounce any candidate's name, or follow the election at all. In America I cannot imagine that the debate over whether Gordon Brown should call an election made it to the nightly news. Of course, perhaps if we could find an alternate pronunciation for his name we would feel more ownership of his decision-making. I will give it some thought.

There was an almost imperceptible lightening of the spirits in our household yesterday. After her acting class (Avery's been given the role of an Italian BOY in the class play: that should be interesting), she came home, sat down with her new American Girl doll from her Nonna, and we didn't see her for the rest of the afternoon. She gathered up her other American Girl paraphernalia (most of it from her two doting grandmothers, thank you!), did all their hair, changed their outfits, equipped them with their various belongings, lined them up on her bed, did their hair again. All afternoon. She emerged to have dinner and a nice piece of:

Nonna's Banana Bread (although I made it this time)
(two loaves)


2 cups granulated sugar
1 cup softened butter
6 ripe bananas, mashed (approximately 3 cups)
4 eggs, well beaten
2 1/2 cups cake flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

With electric beater, cream together sugar and butter until light and fluffy. Add bananas and eggs, beating until well mixed.

Sift together dry ingredients three times. Blend with banana mixture, but do not over mix.

Pour into 2 lightly-greased loaf pans. Bake for 45 minutes to one hour, until firm in the centers and the edges begin to separate from pans.

Cool on a rack for 10 minutes before removing from pans. These freeze beautifully.

**************

Well, it's a simply gorgeous day (John really did bring the sunshine back to London, thank goodness), I've just drunk an enormous glass of beetroot, Tuscan kale, parsley, ginger, carrot, pear and celery juice and I feel pretty righteous. Maybe a nice long walk in the park before we collect (there's a good Britishism for you, as if there's more than one) Avery from the "stable," she tells me, not the good old American term "barn." "Barn means you're likely to come upon livestock, Mommy," she explained. It's good to have a translator.

24 January, 2008

nearly there


















Things are, I hesitate to say, looking up. Blue skies all day! My best beloved slept from 11 p.m. to 10:30 a.m.! And Avery had her last important interview this afternoon. A school she's not really interested in wrote yesterday to invite her for an interview on February 5! Lord have mercy, wasn't this all meant to be over long before that? I'm not even sure she needs to go.

Tomorrow is, ta dah: the St Paul's exam for which the poor child has been preparing for a year and a half. We can only hope she remains virus-free for the next 28 hours, and continues to be her usual intrepid self. Her only wish after her interview this afternoon was to pick up her darling friend Anna, have a biscuit and go play in the Regent's Park playground where they go with their form for PE (and have to share all the desirable rides with their 25 compatriots). So since the day was fair, off we went. It's very satisfying to know that she may be serious, hardworking and growing up faster than we ever would have dreamed, but she's still awfully happy to sit on a merry-go-round with her best friend and giggle. They have a complex and ongoing game called "Shelty" in which Anna plays a Shetland pony (or puppy? I forget) and Avery her doting owner. I confess to my eyes' glazing over when she tries to fill me in on the finer points, but it was great to see them cantering along in the mud and grass.

These interviews! "Look at this painting of a lady with a letter and tell me what you see" was a very lucky draw for Avery. There are very few instances in which a mother with a PhD in art history is of any practical use whatsoever, but this was one of them! "I wonder if it might be a Vermeer," she said innocently, and although it was not, she got huge kudos for even wondering. "What is your favorite book?" was another good one, since she just finished "Rebecca" and the interviewer also loved it. They discussed character development, description and plot (good thing she wasn't faking it), and then moved on to "What can you tell us about American politics?" to which she produced the all-too-telling reply, "I've completely given up on them." Guess what she hears at home? So the lady tried again, with "What are some differences between Democrats and Republicans?" and got "Well, it's mostly to do with what section of the country you live in," revealing her New Yorker status, I'm afraid. I remember after the 2004 election, the cover of New York Magazine was black, utterly black, but for the words in white: "America to New York: Drop Dead." Anyway, I don't think Avery will win any points for her political savvy.

Then another headmistress showed her a photograph of a bird turning into ski slopes turning into leaves and flowers, and asked her to define the word "metamorphosis." Whew. And told us a funny story, too, about the system of "coaching," or "tutoring" for these exams that a lot of parents succumb to. Apparently the coaches get to be fairly well known in the school system, and like a painter with a favorite palette, they reveal their biases and inclinations and methods all too obviously. One apparently loves to equip his little charges with a list of "all-purpose adjectives," which the gulls must plug into their various essays and answers. "One year, and I wish I were joking about this, the word 'melancholy' peppered at least 20 essays and so we knew they had all studied with that one particular tutor." Avery piped up, "Well, it IS a nice word," and the head looked at her sharply and said, "But not in absolutely any situation, surely," and Avery said mildly, "Well, you can always try to say 'NOT melancholy', as well!"

Well, it's nearly over. The dinner of champions tonight? This was her request.

Spaghetti Carbonara with Mushrooms
(serves 4)


1/2 pound American (streaky) smoked bacon, diced
3 tbsps white wine
2 tbsps butter
1/2 pound mushrooms of any kind, sliced
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 cups light (single) cream
1 egg yolk, lightly beaten
fresh black pepper
4 tbsps grated parmesan cheese, plus more for sprinkling
as much spaghetti as you like, perhaps shy of a pound

In a heavy skillet, brown the bacon to your liking, pouring off the fat as you do so. When the bottom of the skillet begins to get too brown with bacon bits, remove the bacon to a dish and deglaze the skillet with the wine. Add the butter and melt, then saute the mushrooms and garlic till soft. Pour in the cream and the egg yolk and mix well over low-medium heat (depending on your cooker), then sprinkle with the pepper and the cheese. Set more cheese aside to garnish the dish. Take the skillet off the heat.

Cook the spaghetti and drain well, then toss in the skillet of sauce and turn up the heat. Toss in the bacon. Stir until thoroughly warmed and thick, a couple of minutes. Yum.

***************

With this she asked for roasted beets with balsamic vinegar. What child ASKS for beets? I ask you. And yet will she eat a carrot? Absolutely not.

And although I left early to make Avery's interview, and the tutor was late, we had a really nice meeting of the creative writing class at Birkbeck. My goodness my classmates are talented. For various reasons my own attempt at the homework was lame by any standards this week, but Keith's story of a psychotic throat-slashing ("their throats grinned up at me" or some such incredible description) and Carol's of an alienated Ukrainian parking warden swapping his helmet for a yarmulke for shabbat... these stories were amazing. So impressive, and such nice, sympathetic people. I will really buckle down for next week's homework. I have neglected it sorely, but then there have been other things on my mind.

Ah well, beets beckon. I cannot describe to you how brave Avery has been through this long preparation, too much competition (in my humble opinion), punishing schedule and rigorous exams, plus all the faux-social chitchat of these wretched interviews. Through it all she has been positive and even sunny, focused and energetic. ONE MORE DAY! Fingers crossed. And then, heaven forfend, I may have to get a life of my own. Carol asked me today, "Are you a helicopter mother, Kristen?" "What's that?" I asked, startled. "One who hovers." Oh, probably. I asked Avery, and she said, "Well, in a GOOD way." I'm not sure there is a good way to hover, but it's worked so far and I'm too old to learn new tricks now. Maybe with grandchildren...

21 January, 2008

fun with links















Oh, now I'm just being silly (these links are of my treasured Linda Lee Johnson bracelet, thanks, darling Lulu). Seriously, though, I have been learning how to put links to other blogs I like in the sidebar of my front page. Do look. I'm so proud of myself, learning to write little "html" thingys that make these hot links appear. "Laraland" I love because Lara is a delight (a young exercise-mad mum in Marylebone), then "Fayefood" will give you an idea for dinner nearly every night (plus her little boy Ferdinand gets up to some amazing high jinks and conversation), and of course my friend Caz's devotion to Matthew Macfadyen. "Free Rice" is a totally addictive vocabulary-testing site that is charitable as well. Well, anyway, dip in if you like. I'll keep adding them as I remember places I like.

What I REALLY need to figure out, however, is how to build a recipe index. It's all very well for me to expect you all to scroll through enormously long and boring posts just to get to the recipe embedded somewhere in it, when all you really want is to know how to make "Kristen's Pretentious Meatloaf." Well, that's a bad example because the recipe appears right at the top of the post. Does anyone out there know how I could build an index? What I want is to have a list, like I have my list of links, and you could click on, for example, "seafood" and get my fabulous scallops recipe, with olive oil and parsley. Without having to slog through all my descriptions of our summer activities (although who could resist this Janey facey).

It's all brought up, however, some thorny issues. Say I wanted to build a recipe index divided into categories, like "pasta," or "seafood." Does my scallops recipe go into pasta because it's with spaghetti, or seafood because the main ingredient is scallops? And how about mushroom risotto? Is it a side dish, because it's a starch with some veg, or is it potentially a main dish for vegetarians? I'm getting my knickers in a twist because every recipe seems to be a minefield of dangerous categorisation. Is there a separate section for chicken, or poultry, or does it all come under the heading of "meat dishes"? Or is "meat" only red meat? And is duck poultry or meat? I certainly cannot have a heading "game" with only recipe, that's for sure.

I think I'm missing the boat here, really. I don't think my blog, or my future cookbook, is really just a list of recipes. It's really more of a memoir (of, sadly, a completely unremarkable life!). Maybe my recipes should be in categories like "comfort food," although one person might gravitate to macaroni and cheese, in that mood, while another whips up lobster en gelee. I just don't know.

Speaking of comfort food, and comfort in general, I am finding the world so bewildering lately that I've gone all out for dinner tonight: macaroni and cheese for a main course, and I'm taking my darling friend Becky's advice and including some Dairylea, a sort of British baby cheese, for extra creaminess. I remember living in France in high school and encountering my first "real" cheese, my experiences to date having been limited to American, Parmesan in a green can, and Velveeta. I found that at age 16 I definitely preferred all the familiar flavors and found Brie, Camembert and the like completely unpalatable. As a joke, the family I was living with bought me some "La Vache Qui Rit," known here as "The Laughing Cow," and expected me to find it totally degeulasse (disgusting) and be converted to "their" cheese. No such. I still adore Vache, and Dairylea is very like it, only in slices, just perfect for that midnight grilled cheese. With the macaroni we're having special "slow food" bangers from Food Fore Thought, and sauteed red peppers and broccolini. I feel a definite need for all things familiar and cosy. I must say, I tried to be a good person today and turn around the difficult or upsetting things in my life and see them as... opportunities. To achieve something, or get through something, or rise above something. As opposed to just feeling overwhelmed! Didn't have a marked success, but I shall try again tomorrow. Just for practice.

This afternoon found us all at big King's College, the big sister to Avery's little prep school, for her interview there. A gorgeous Adam building, spanning actually six houses in Marylebone, and the most loquacious admissions director (or person of any kind, for that matter) that I have ever met. Not one of her sentences, once begun, ended in ANYTHING like the subject matter with which she had begun. Complaints about the endless rain became soliloquies on her skill with bathroom tiling, conversations begun with talking about the charm of prep school uniforms morphed into dissertations on the bad behavior of her grandson (clearly remarkable in every way). She seems reason enough to send Avery there! From there Avery was whisked away by the headmistress and then after a suitable interval, we ourselves were brought in. Such situations always make me look down at my hands and stammer, do you feel that way about female authority figures? A formidable woman like the bow of a ship, only with softly quirking eyebrows at some bit of particularly British wit. Very calming. I had no idea: if the child sits the exam at School #1, and is also applying to Schools 2 and 3 in the same group, only School #1 sees the actual exam itself, what they call "the script." The other schools see merely the score, reported by School #1. So the rules may say that it's entirely up to you where your child sits the exam, but had I worked out this extra detail ahead of time, I'd have thought, "Hmm, I wonder which school I want to have Avery's actual SCRIPT in hand, and not just someone else's interpretation of her mark." Alas, too late. Actually probably she sat the exam at the right school anyway, but not through any parental brilliance on my part.

It's exhausting. And we don't even DO anything! Poor Avery on parade. She seems to thrive for the most part, and when asked, "What do you look for in a school, Avery?" replied calmly, "I like to meet friendly people. If I meet someone unfriendly, I might worry that that was the whole ethic of the school. Not that it's happened, so far." Ever the diplomat... thank goodness for her father's influence.

Righty-ho. I still have my apron on which must mean, gosh, we haven't eaten yet. Maybe that's what's got me kerfuffled: so far my food intake today has been enormous glass of juice made of beetroot, cavolo nero, celery, pear and parsley. Not exactly the diet of champions, more like a punishment for sins as yet uncommitted. Actually I really like my juices, so tomorrow maybe a little Dairylea on the side...

19 January, 2008

Sunday world
















Just got back from the Sunday farmer's market where I picked up all my favorites: red-chilli goats cheese, beetroot and cavolo nero and carrots for juice, Chegworth Worcester and Bramley apple juice, and some sausages for the macaroni and cheese I feel is in our future tomorrow night. Tonight, however, is destined to be scallops with parsley, because they were half price at Waitrose!

Scallops with Two Parslies
(serves four)

1 lb spaghetti (I prefer De Cecco)

1/2 cup olive oil
6 large sea scallops per person (slice in half if very large indeed)
5 cloves garlic minced
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
salt and pepper

1 large handful flat-leaf parsley, chopped
1 large handful curly parsley, chopped
1 cup fresh breadcrumbs, toasted lightly

The sauce will cook in just the time your spaghetti needs to boil, so bring the water to a boil and put in the pasta.

Now heat the olive oil and simmer the garlic, but don't let it brown. Place the scallops in the oil and cook on high heat until they turn opaque (about three minutes), turning occasionally. Add the red peppers and salt and pepper, and take off the heat. Sprinkle the parsley on the scallops and toss gently. Drain the pasta and add to the scallops, then toss with the breadcrumbs. Delicious!

******************

And of course on the way home from the market, it... RAINED. Honestly. Isn't this a charming little Noah's Ark? Here's where you can order one.

Well, John is home safely from Iowa, and for the moment he's resting. I think there will be a lot of resting in his future. It's strangely sadder to have him back than it was to have him gone, but I think it's only because actually seeing him makes his dad's death real, somehow. The whole world feels different. One friend told me, about death and loss, "it makes the world feel as if it's in a different orbit, for a time." Then I suppose one absorbs it into one's life experience. When we dropped Avery off at the barn, Kirsty asked John how his dad was doing, and when he told her, she said softly, "But remember the miraculous summer you had." That is what we need to do.

At any rate, he's home. And driving! His approach to the whole driving thing is completely different from mine. He OWNS the road, so everyone else has to make do. He roars down George Street, takes the yellow light at Edgware Road as a green, and roars ahead. It was so nice to be in the passenger seat again!

Nice, too, was Avery's exam on Friday. She really does not seem to mind these ordeals! I picked her up in the (yep) rain on Friday afternoon, and she reported the opposite of last week: this time the maths were easy and the English impossible. So it would seem, between the two exams, no one will have done well because the strong English students will have thrived last week, and the strong maths students this week. But taken together... and here's an exciting bit of news (at least exciting in the exam-obsessed life we are living right now): City of London School for Girls has written to say that based on her excellent performance last week, they'd like to see her for an interview on Tuesday. So interviews Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and one more exam on Friday and then we can all breathe a sigh of relief. Perhaps the sun will come out? Best not to hope for ridiculous miracles, though.

On Friday night Avery spent the night with Anna and I treated myself to a ridiculous but so delicious extravagance: dinner at Nobu! But you know what: have your cocktail at home before you go. Because while I don't mind paying lots of money for something I could never have at home, like yellowtail tuna with jalapeno, I do mind paying $24 for a martini. Even with whatever miraculous sake they use, and the tiny, tender little Japanese cucumbers floating on top. Save your money for the spicy tuna roll, and the soft shell crab roll. I did NOT allow my dinner to be spoiled by the annoying American businessman sitting next to me, overflowing his seat, talking on TWO mobile phones about whatever business deal was occupying his tiny mind. As I sat there he downed an entire plate of Kobe beef without chewing, as far as I could tell, ignoring the gorgeous trio of sauces, the pile of sauteed heirloom mushrooms. I couldn't help stealing a glance at his bill when it came: 180 pounds! For one. My, my, I'm not in Kansas any longer.

Do you have an 11-year-old girl who needs a project? Avery's latest obsession is latch-hooking. I remember going through a similar phase in my long-ago and misspent youth, and now she's caught the bug. She dug out a smiley-face project that my friend Alyssa brought for her last Christmas, then laid away and forgotten. Finished that, got her friend Anna obsessed as well, and needed another project. So yesterday afternoon found us at John Lewis in the crafty department that usually brings to me a headache of enormous proportions as soon as I enter it. But this time we had a specific mission, and off we went to become the proud owners of an ENORMOUS Peter Rabbit rug-to-be.

Well, I think I hear my long-travelling husband stirring, so I shall go see what he needs. Enjoy your Sunday and... don't forget your brolly.

18 January, 2008

another exam, another rainstorm


















Here's a good London riddle: how soon would I have to stop posting on my blog if I couldn't post on days when it... RAINED? Honestly. It's enough to make me belligerently stop turning the water off while I brush my teeth. How can we possibly run out? It's just awful, I have to say.

One of my writing class colleagues told me yesterday that she has "Seasonal Affective Disorder," for real, not just feeling annoyed that it's raining AGAIN, but true blues from not seeing the sun. How could you live here with such a condition? I even enjoy gray days, I never say, "I've got to get away," or plan holidays on beaches in February. I don't mind the winter. But constantly being wet is getting me down. You can choose from the following wardrobe options: wet tights, or wet trousers. And hair? There's no point in ever blowing it dry. Mine is sticking up permanently now like I had an artichoke on my head. It's really demoralizing.

So last night in the, you guessed it, RAIN, I picked up Avery at Anna's house, turning down Becky's dinner invitation reluctantly because it would have been nice to stay, but I just did not have the wherewithal to be friendly. Like an illness with no real symptoms. On the way home I thought, you know what, for once I'm going to buy some ready-made food that Waitrose is always touting as "just as good as homemade," since there was enough leftover creamed chicken for Avery but not for me. Well, never again. Honestly, once you've unwrapped the food from all the plastic and cardboard that can't go in the oven, and placed it all in dishes or on cookie sheets or whatever, to my mind I'd rather simply have chopped some garlic and cooked my own dinner. I won't tell you what I bought because you might love it, but suffice to say next time I'm in that lazy mood, I'd rather stick a chicken in the oven and leave it for awhile and have something really good. I'll go this far: I bought prawns. And for the money and the trouble, I'd just as soon:

Quick Prawns with Garlic and Chilli
(serves one lazy person)


6 giant tiger prawns, raw but shells removed
3 cloves garlic, minced
little shake of powdered ginger
1 tbsp peanut oil
splash sesame oil
sprinkle hot chilli flakes
3 spring onions, sliced
soy sauce to taste

Heat the oils in a wok or skillet and add everything else. Stir till prawns are pink. ENJOY.

*****************

Someday when I have a proper freezer I am even going to have little ice cube trays filled with mixed chopped garlic and ginger. Then I will officially have NO excuse for prepared food.

Anyway, Avery took her cozy bath, we ate our dinner and watched Becky's gift of "Miss Potter," which I adore, and that was that. As luck would have it, the temple of Avery's eyeglasses snapped, totally unaccountably, so the poor thing has to do her Harry Potter imitation with scotch tape today.

This morning dawned (if you can use such a word for the alarm going off, since there was no actual dawn involved) soggy, but we persevered with a nice crepe filled with Nutella, a couple of slices of fabulous bacon, a juicy Comice pear, and then we were off. And we arrived at South Hampstead VERY early. Embarrassingly so, as my almost pre-teenager's "Oh, Mommy!" pointed out to me. Nevertheless, I left her at the door with some Godolphin look-alike grownup girls, and slogged home. It's sort of a relief: by this afternoon she'll have done all she can to get into five of her six schools. Two more interviews next week and one more exam and she's THROUGH. "Then it will be out of your hands," I said reassuringly. Or so I thought. "But I'm the sort of person who LIKES having things in my hands, Mommy," she pointed out. Ah well.

John will be home on Sunday, which will be glorious. No doubt with his arrival the rain will dry up and the sun will shine. Or maybe it will just seem that way. TGIF, everyone.

17 January, 2008

variety is the... well, you know














You know your appetite takes up the two sides of your brain: the one that eats for health and the one that eats for FUN. In my case, the fun isn't chocolate, or even biscuits or candy. It's CREAM. And butter. So I have two suggestions that, if you follow them both, will lead to the perfect balance of diet. I think.

The first is, and I'm beginning to believe it's the key to all good health, a nice big glass of mixed fresh juice. I got my juicer last year, and while I will never become a fanatic who believes that all food should be eaten raw, I do think there's something to getting the fruit and veg while they're truly fresh. And, call me nutty, I have yet to come upon a combination of fruit and veg that isn't nice together. Plus it's a good way to use up those bits and pieces in your fridge that aren't quite nice enough to eat whole. Today was blueberries, a good handful, a number of slightly shriveled baby tomatoes, a whole beetroot, a handful of celery stalks, 3 carrots, a knob of ginger and an apple. Plus a whole bunch of flat-leaf parsley which I am assured will completely neutralize that lovely vodka I had before dinner last night. Throw them in your juicer, stir it up and down the hatch. I swear, just the vibrant color will put a zing in your step. Truly.

I just came yesterday from my annual doctor's checkup where I gave most of my blood to be analysed for all the stuff you spend the rest of the year not thinking about. Mostly cholesterol. And normally mine is very nice. So until I find out otherwise, I will continue to believe that one of the ultimate comfort dinners is:

Creamed Chicken with Single-Malt Scotch and Thyme
(serves two)


1 tbsp butter
1 small onion, minced
3 cloves garlic, minced
2 tsps dried thyme
a good splash single-malt Scotch
2 chicken breast fillets, cut in bite-size pieces
1 tbsp sweet paprika
juice of 1/2 lemon
salt and fresh-ground pepper to taste
1 cup sour cream

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet. Then gently fry the onion and garlic till soft, and add the thyem. Pour in the Scotch and let it evaporate. Then stir in the chicken breasts and toss until nearly cooked through. Sprinkle with paprika and lemon juice, salt and pepper, and then stir in the sour cream. Turn OFF the heat. The chicken will continue to cook and not get tough, while you steam some basmati rice and broccoli on the side.

When the rice and broccoli are ready, turn up the heat under the chicken and stir until bubbly. Serve over the rice. HEAVEN.

********************

Well, I stayed up far too late last night chatting with my adored relatives in Iowa, for which I must now pay the price and take a short nap or I will never make it to my writing class this afternoon. And tomorrow brings another exam for Avery, this one sat at South Hampstead High School. I'm trying to get up the courage to drive, but something tells me it will be a ruinous cab ride, instead. Wish her luck.

16 January, 2008

be glad you have two feet














You know you're scraping the bottom of the barrel of maternal reassurance when your response to your daughter's ongoing exam anxiety is, "Just be glad we can afford to send you to school AT ALL." This is at dinner after a waterlogged day of interview anxiety (it went fine), transportation anxiety, topped off with the confession that the splinters in her feet from Christmas still hurt.

OK, here's where my mother claims her grandmother would say, "Just be glad you have two feet." Clearly I come by my conversational techniques honestly. But seriously. I know a lot more serious things could be going wrong right now, and I keep reminding Avery of them. Note to self: this method of parenting is not effective. Children don't care what BIGGER could be going wrong. The things that are going wrong right now are all that counts.

So I broke down and looked at her splinters. And it turns out they aren't, even, they're tiny shards of broken glass, I think. I have a vague memory of a broken glass in the kitchen over Christmas (was it here, or in Connecticut? I can't even remember that much) and telling her not to run around barefoot. Clearly I was too late. Well, the fact that the little shards, which I can see just under the surface of her skin, still are bothering her nearly a month on means a trip to the doctor. This on top of everything else that is happening just seems like... too much. But off we go today, after school. I decided to kill two whatevers with one whatever, so I too am under the microscope: might as well get all that pesky blood work done so as to start the New Year knowing that my cholesterol is still all right, etc. So no food for me until 4 o'clock this afternoon. WHAT? Now I'm whingeing.

But I must say, the long-awaited interview at St. Paul's was lovely, according to Avery. "She reminded me of Indiana Nona!" she said of her interviewer. "It was partly her sweater, which had cats on it, and partly that her eyes crinkled up when she smiled, and she was NICE to me," she reported, so that was all right. Instead of being asked to identify a vegetable or discuss Mideast politics, she was shown a paperweight with a dandelion inside it, and asked to describe what she saw. "I said it looked like the kind of dandelion you blow on to make a wish, only since it was embedded in glass it might be like wishing on a crystal ball." Sounds good to me. They discussed her favorite books, and the lady asked her to recommend her two favorite books FOR BOYS. Interesting. I think it was the official "Anything but Harry Potter" question, so happily Avery had two unusual books to suggest. I see one of them on my desk this morning, so I guess she's been thinking about her answer.

I sat in the massive panelled entry hall, surrounded by oil portraits of Paulinas past, or illustrious benefactresses, who knows. Countless girls rushed around, arms full of books, all dressed in, you guessed it, skinny jeans, ballet flats, hoodies and long fringey scarves. They all looked mysteriously alike! And LOTS of hair. The dulcet tones of their posh accents rang through the hall, and I looked intently for signs of eating disorders, anxiety disorders, socialization disorders. None visible. In fact, three of the girls came bounding up to Avery as we waited and caroled, "Good luck! You'll be fine! Welcome to St. Paul's!" Very impressive. So the lady came up to us and said warmly, "You must be Avery," and shook my hand, and that was that. Took her away. I tried to read my magazine, but I was too fascinated by all the activity around, and also by trying, unsuccessfully, to imagine Avery as an 18-year-old. What will she be like?

Anyway, the interview was fine. "I don't know what I was so worried about!" she chortled, and I struggled to find a message in this. Struggled and failed. I feel lately as if everything I say were written in a Chinese fortune cookie, or an astrology reading. Really futile and boring! And anyway she doesn't hear me. So all the exhortations like, "See, then that means there's no reason to worry about the NEXT interview," fall on deaf ears. Or rather ears that listen and then a mouth that says, "But that one will be completely different, Mommy!" You idiot, is the unspoken addendum. Sigh.

I'm beginning to see the point in a two-parent household. It's so one of you can walk away, shut the door, turn off the sound of your precious child's voice, and let the other adult get the brunt of the venting! I am steeling myself for the doctor's office today. Actually, a secret little part of me is looking forward to someone else being in charge: the doctor will have to do what doctors do. I know Avery is spending her school day imagining a giant fork digging into her little foot. I said, "Just enjoy your school day and you can start worrying about the doctor at 3:20."

Ah, well, it will all be over soon. Exam Friday, interview Monday, interview Thursday, exam Friday. Done and dusted. We'll have to think up some massive treat at the end of it all. In the meantime, be glad you have two... oh, never mind. Be as whingey as you like. I'll just cover my ears.

15 January, 2008

battling the elements
















I know. In the grand scheme of things, a driving rainstorm at 8 a.m. when you're trying to get your child to school is NOT a tragedy. I agree. But when you're really not a morning person to begin with, and then you're waiting on the corner for a taxi and cars fly by splashing you and there are no taxis and THEN your child remembers that her backpack is in the car, two blocks away, and it's still raining... so you rush to the car, realise that by now you'll be late if you don't just DRIVE instead of finding a taxi, but then it occurs to you that you can't read to the little Form Three gulls that you enjoy so much, because you now have a car that you'll never find a parking spot for in the RAIN... then it officially becomes a day that has not started off auspiciously.

So I drove Avery to school in total silence because she's 100 pages away from the end of "Little Women", and for some reason has focused on finishing the book before her St. Paul's interview this afternoon. Why? So she can say, in case anyone asks, that she's read "Little Women." I know, I don't get it either.

Isn't this a pretty photograph, anyway? I didn't take it, but someone who doesn't live in London where rain is not a thing you greet with open arms did, and you can see lots of other lovely photographs on his website. The page where I found the photograph is called "An Appreciation of Rain." Well, ask anyone in England right now about rain and you'll be in for an onslaught of invective. Flooding expected today in all the poor spots that were flooded in the summer. This is one of the few days when living in London just isn't all it's cracked up to be.

It's going to be one of those days. Two hours and fifteen minutes from now will find me back at school trying to find her, to get her to Brook Green, find something to feed her so she's all sparkly, then get to the school for her interview at 1:15. I wonder what I should do with myself for however long it takes? Will it have stopped raining by then? I am chagrined that I have reached a stage in my life where my day consists merely of getting someone else to the thing that she needs to do. Do I ever actually DO anything myself, or do I merely wash clothes for, feed, and transport someone to do things? This shall remain a rhetorical question for today, because right now just ferrying her where she needs to be and being ready to respond to whatever happens at 1:15 is task enough. What will it be like, an interview at the top London girls' day school? Rumours, amounting by this point to urban legend, are flying around the school. "Lucilla had to identify a picture of a gourd and say what it reminded her of, and she said it looked like her bottom," is one story, and "Juliette says she was asked to describe the significance of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," and "Have you ever heard of a painter called Gauguin? Because Molly was shown a picture of a naked lady by him and had to describe the emotional content in it," are some of the choice morsels. These children are 11 years old!

Ah well, by 3 o'clock, doubtless, it will all be over. Until the next big exam on Friday. The stories surrounding last Friday's exam are already the stuff of urban legend. "If you sneeze, or anyone else sneezes, and you make eye contact with another student, the proctor will come and RIP UP your exam, right in front of you," and "One girl was sitting her exam, and the roof started leaking, right onto her paper, and they wouldn't let her move." Honestly, what we will all talk about when this process is over I cannot imagine. We may, horror of horrors, have to get lives of our own. That prospect is actually beginning to sound appealing.

Perhaps the best thing to do is to concentrated on the World' Greatest Bedtime Snack. As you know, I am a night owl, and it's very tempting for me to stay up until all hours reading, watching Miss Marple's Nemesis, talking on the telephone to people living five or six hours earlier than I am. But being in charge of the morning routine has meant a strict curtailing of all late-night pleasantries. Well, not quite. Midnight last night found me with:

Double Gloucester Omelet with Duchy Back Bacon
(serves one mother who should be asleep)


1 tsp butter
1 organic Harvest Moon egg (from the farmer's market of course)
1 tbsp single cream
sprinkle Maldon sea salt
a dozen strokes across a grater of Double Gloucester cheese
1 slice Duchy Original Back Bacon

Melt the butter in a nonstick skillet (like the massively heavy Le Creuset one you got from your perfect mother in law for Christmas). Whisk together the egg and cream with a fork and gently pour it into one half or so of the skillet, leaving the other half for the bacon. Lay the bacon on that spot. Leave over a gentle heat until the egg is nearly cooked (just bubbling a bit) and grate the cheese over the egg. Turn over the bacon. Now, when the cheese is melted, fold the egg over on itself two times. Turn onto a warm plate with the bacon.

**************

Obviously this is not a RECIPE per se. This is a celebration of perfect ingredients, a quiet household, the peace of midnight, and a wish that you could be there in Iowa with the ones you love to hand them the warm plate, kiss their cheeks and make everything all right.

Well, my chores beckon: turning warm cats out of beds and making them, scrubbing the omelet skillet, the inevitable laundry. Stay dry, everyone, and wish Avery good luck this afternoon. She may well need it.

13 January, 2008

it was only a matter of time














Before I locked us out of the house, that is.

Because I'm just that sort of girl. I have my housekey in my bag, unless I don't and it's in my coat pocket. One of my coats; not necessarily the one I'm wearing at the time. But normally, or at least in the incredibly luxurious life I've been living the past year with my husband at home, he lets me in. It happens all the time. And I knew that, sooner or later, while John's away I would lock us out. Today was the day.

I had been so good while Avery was at the barn: folding laundry, finishing my photo album, cleaning the kitchen. And when it was time to collect her, I thought, "I have efficiently shopped for dinner ahead of time, and her breakfast for tomorrow is sorted, so guess what? I don't to bring anything with me except my car key!" The door had no sooner swung to with a resounding bang, than I cursed myself. Thoroughly locked out. I rang Janet next door, she of the Tacy visiting fame, and thankfully she was in. She looked up the phone number of our outrageously expensive landlords with their much-touted 24-hour concierge service. Well, it turns out that it might be 24 hours, just NOT IN A ROW. Because these particular weekend hours, the lovely porter is enjoying his much deserved rest. "And the management agency itself has no keys to our flats?" I asked in amazement. "No, it's not necessary because you have a dedicated caretaker who has your keys." "Well, dedicated he may be, but he's in Kent!" I nearly shouted.

Finally she allowed as how she could call a locksmith to break the lock and let us in, but she wanted me to know that I'd be liable for the costs. I said in desperation that I'd be happy to fight that out with the management tomorrow, but that I needed to get in my flat TONIGHT. So the locksmith was duly ordered.

"Wait a minute," Janet's Texan husband John said. "Let's see if we can't work this out on our own. It'd be a sight cheaper, for example, to replace a window pane than a lock." So he and I tiptoed out with a flashlight to break into my flat. It turned out to be ridiculously easy to do, the finer details of which process I will not divulge here for obvious reasons, but whose weak links will be addressed forthwith. Suffice it to say, we're in. No thanks to solid gold Grosvenor the Landlords.

Whew.

The earlier part of the day had been quite nice, actually. We slept late (it's so nice to have a child who's old enough to help herself to a blueberry muffin and thus leave her mother to lie in!), then I took Avery to the barn for the day. And, feeling in the need to do something self-indulgent, I took myself to Angelus, the new restaurant adjacent to the mews where the stables are. For years it was a pub called the Archery, and since Avery's been riding at Ross Nye it's been derelict and quite sad. Then late last year the nice lady who owns the Village Shop from which all the children at the barn get their treats told us that it was being turned into a French restaurant. I greeted this remark with major skepticism and some disdain: how snooty could you get? And what good with that do any of us barn mothers and fathers, who need a place to have a cup of tea on a rainy afternoon while the children are in the park on their horses?

Well, I could not have been more wrong. The place opened in September and I just have not had the chance to go. Well, there was one day that John and I agreed to meet up there with Twiggy and Ed, and it wasn't open at 11:30 as the website said, but noon. The maitre d' was completely nutty, putting his arm around me in a MOST un-English manner and pulling me firmly to him as he explained his intense regret at not being able to let us in. I was mildly put off by this intimacy, and we repaired to a pub.

Well, what with our sadness this week, and the sort of unhappy lead up to it over the week before that, I have not had much of an appetite. And what I did eat made me feel unwell. Chicken soup's been about it. But today I woke up feeling enormously hungry, made myself a huge glass of fresh juice (beetroot, apple, two kinds of parsley, ginger, carrot and tomato, so virtuous), and even then by the time I dropped Avery off, I was famished. So off I went to Angelus. And it was well worth the wait.

Seared scallops with little round slices of steamed Charlotte potatoes, little wilted greens and a very subtle thin sauce. Then foie gras two ways: a normal sort of round slice of cold foie gras, and then, magically, a tiny pot of "creme brulee," which sounds ridiculous but was SUBLIME: foie gras meltingly smooth and the precise consistency of creme brulee, with the smallest amount of Demerara sugar and a sprinkle of poppy seeds, crackling on top of warm mousse of goose liver. You have never had such a thing! Or maybe you have, in St Barths or some such fancy place. But I never have! The waiter and maitre d' were so pleased that I was so happy. And I was the only patron! Until I was nearly ready to leave and then a very snooty Frenchy couple came in and made noises about wine. I know it's a fate worse than death for some people, to go to lunch alone, but I love it. I took along a good book (The View From Morningside, by my friend Constance Colby, a perfect story of growing up in Manhattan), listened to the atrocious French pop music (the sort I remember from my high school days in Brittany: lots of intense lovespeak, with a crooner mooing "que tu es belle" in the background, just awful), watched the awnings sway in the wind, and listened to the occasional clap-clap of horses' hooves going by the back door. Go, do, you won't be sorry. I read in the review I linked here that it's well known for its incredible wine list: doubtless I made the waiter cry, with my bottle of Pellegrino. But you try the wine and let me know.

Well, it's everything on a pancake for dinner, so I must run. All our thoughts under the benign surface are in Iowa, where tomorrow promises to be a most difficult, but probably very fulfilling day. Our hearts are with you, our loved ones.

12 January, 2008

of exams, and then comfort














I know "The Book of Common Prayer" tell us that "in the midst of life we are in death," but it seems to me that more to the point, in the midst of death we are in *life*. Now Martin Luther had a much more esoteric and philosophical interpretation of this idea, but it's very simple actually. You can't just turn yourself off, or stop the world and get off. In fact you cannot really even pause to give due attention to the significance of loss, sometimes, because the vast and yet minutely particular machinery of life tugs at you relentlessly. Just so was our day yesterday.

It began with a driving rainstorm and an early alarm clock because, in the midst of our sadness and loneliness, The Exams Must Go On. Well, I don't know if they must, but they did. So in the dark of early January morning, we got ourselves to Godolphin and Latymer School for the first of the three every-Friday exams that have loomed so long on Avery's horizon. She, full of blueberry muffins, pancetta and strawberries (never let it be said that anxiety affects her appetite, bless her heart), packed up her Pony Club pencil case (her little ritual of taking every item out and describing it to me broke my heart: such a serious little girl) and we set off in a taxi. Not for me the search for a parking spot, not on such a day.

I let the taxi go and walked Avery to the door, but before I could properly hug her or anything, she was swept up by the throngs and I just pecked her cheek and off she went. I felt totally bereft! Slogged my wet way to the Hammersmith bus station (a place that has the potential to kill completely any interest you might have in humanity's continuing past today). Home on the bus, frankly half asleep, and staggering into the flat. So depressed. But there in the sink was a beautiful bouquet of white lilies from Avery's school. That's the sort of gesture that makes things worthwhile. So I did my little chores, looking at my watch, and then finally succumbed to an hour under the duvet with my cats and a hot water bottle. The alarm (two in one day! what a horror) woke me in time for the second bus ride of the day, back to the school.

You would have laughed at the pickup ritual! I suppose if they had actually poked the children with hot little pins it MIGHT have been more unpleasant, but not much. The hundreds of wet parents, all smelling like dogs or bears, crowded into the assembly hall, lined with ginormous wooden plaques listing all the gulls in perpetuity who have won this or that scholarship, nearly all with the words "Oxford University" or "Cambridge University" after their blameless names, with the occasional "Yale University" sprinkling the English tradition with a little heretical American dust. At precisely 12:15 a formidable young woman stepped up onto the stage, smashed a gavel down on a table and shouted from a microphone that she was the deputy head. I cannot lisp the tender syllables of her name because of the babel of parental tongues that would not shut up. Finally she got across the information that our gulls would come out onto the stage under the auspices of the room number in which they had undergone (to say "taken" does not adequately convey the anxiety in the room) the exam. Then she proceeded to bellow out room numbers, and groups of six or eight cowering little shapes would slink onto the stage, whereupon six or eight adult arms would wave frantically and the bodies attached to the arms push in a MOST un-English way toward the stage. Just awful. There were tears, lots of tears. Had the exam been that bad, or could the gulls in question not find their parental arms? I never found out.

Finally Room 14 was announced and there was Avery in her little group, looking remarkably calm, pencil case under her arm. I retrieved her and we went out (the rain having, mercifully, stopped), and we ran away as fast as we could. "So? How was it?" I asked, and she stopped dead on the pavement. "If," she said dramatically, "you were ever to run into the person who wrote that exam, in a dark alley... RUN FOR YOUR LIFE." I had to laugh. "No, seriously," she insisted, "it was two and a half hours of PURE EVIL." This made the whole awful morning worthwhile, I have to say, and there was more where that came from. Specific examples of evil, like "a+b-c=41" and also "a-c+b=52." What are the values of a, b, and c? These two problems (or some variables like them) were apparently true at the same time. Pure evil! There's no other word for it.

And the comprehension! And the essay. Thirty pages of hell. She has no idea how she did. I have to say I was impressed that she had done any of it at all. My last experience with test-taking was the night before the GRE (Graduate Record Examination to those of you lucky enough not to take it). There we all were, seniors in college in October of the year, at the bar naturally, having those last six drinks before going to bed. "What do you have on tomorrow, Kristen?" someone asked, and I looked at my watch and said, "Oh no! I'd better go, I have the GRE tomorrow." From this anecdote it will be apparent that I did not prepare overmuch, nor worry. Well, Avery is made of different stuff. After all the work that child has put into her studies, she had better be rewarded. That's all I can say.

She was sufficiently recovered at lunchtime to eat an enormous bowl of macaroni and cheese. Then we headed off to the skating rink. I sat with her friend Jamie's mother Victoria, who was just what the doctor ordered. A really supportive, lovely talk with her about John's dad, about the exams, about priorities in life and parental responsibility and grief and faith. What I would do without my friends I do not know. Becky took me in hand on Thursday afternoon and fed me handmade beignets and sympathy. I think the only point in grief and loss (not there has to be a point, but it would help) is that after one has been through a thing oneself, one has true empathy for other people going through it, and helpful advice. That is, one does if one is a good person as Becky is. Her kitchen is always so comforting. With three children of her own and mine there as often as not, there are always four bowls of each tasty snack, four glasses of whatever to drink, four voices babbling and clamoring for attention. It was lovely to see the girls express their sympathy for Avery, and then in typical child fashion, move directly to their dress-up clothes and imaginary animals. Most reassuring.

Anyway, back to dreadful Friday. After skating we went out to dinner with Becky's family and it became apparent that neither Avery nor I had what it took to get through an entire evening. We finally made our apologies and slumped off home, whereupon we both alighted on the perfect situation: under the duvet in my bedroom, hot water bottles all round, cats on our laps, and Lord Peter Wimsey's "The Nine Tailors" on the telly. A little girl in a white nightgown, a cold wind blowing outside, and a long phone conversation with John, his mom and sister from Iowa, helped to dispel the horrors of a day that had started so early and been so difficult. It's the perfect movie for one (or two in our case) in need of comfort: bell-ringing, snowy New Year's Eve, lots of scotch and hot water, and an unloved victim. Perfect. We slept well.

And today was much the same. We hung around in bed finishing the movie until nearly noon, and then it felt like the right thing to do to open the curtains, get a fresh breeze, make our beds, and some chicken soup. Guess what? Although I stand firmly behind a chicken soup made with the remains of a good organic roasted chicken from your own homely oven, you know what you can do in a pinch? Make sure you have good quality chicken stock in your cupboard, dump it in a saucepan with some sweet little Chantenay carrots, some sliced celery and a handful of Manischewitz fine noodles, and ten minutes or so later you're in business. The perfect lunch for me for whom any sadness or trouble goes right to my tummy, and for Avery who, though intrepid in every way, loves a good bowl of chicken soup.

I took her off to her first acting class of the term and she has a new teacher! Someone who purports to have some high-level casting responsibilities! And he stopped her in the hallway after class and said, "That was very good," so we feel sure fame and fortune are just a matter of time. There was, however, a brief kerfuffle at pickup. She didn't see the car, I couldn't see her, and we both thought something horrible had happened. It's so luxurious when John is here to drive, while I go in to get her! Avery wailed, "A little person like me needs two parents!" I had to laugh. Isn't it pathetic that I consider it an accomplishment simply to get to the acting school without getting lost, get from there to the grocery, and back again, and home, no accidents and remembering to lock the car. Most people can accomplish this whilst at the same time composing symphonies or trading millions of dollars in junk bonds.

We are surviving. Actually more than that. I wonder if it isn't maybe even more useful and satisfying a parental experience to get a child successfully through an awful time, than it is to enjoy a good time. It's hard not to be able to do anything to prevent a sad loss, or to put out a hand to make the hurt go away. But if you can take the job you've been given, not curl up in a ball and give up, and come out the other side still standing, it's not a bad thing. And tomorrow she gets the whole day at the stable. And... it promises to rain ALL day. After all, we wouldn't want anything to be too easy.

11 January, 2008

a darker world today


















The world is darker and colder today, because yesterday we lost my beloved father-in-law. I can't describe to you properly the feeling of a world with Jack in it: it was like having a perpetual strong, warm arm around your shoulder, a protective, gentle shield that nothing bad or scary could penetrate. He went through the world with absolute generosity, wanting nothing more than to see the people he loved happy and safe. And when he was with us, we were happy and safe. He was optimistic, energetic, unerringly believing all the best of the people around him, and consequently, in the face of that belief, we were more often at our best when he was with us. With all his experience of the world, his was nonetheless an innocent spirit that met life with exuberance and endless energy, unswerving honesty and strength of character. I see a great deal of him in John, and more than a little in Avery, too: an inner essence of goodness and truth.

John is there in Iowa with his dear mother and sister, and Avery and I feel so very far away, farther than an ocean and miles can account for. Yesterday was a day when I suppose I finally grew up. You know, you can coast along looking like an adult for a very long time before you hit a wall that says, "You are no longer a child, so buck up and play your part." My part was to break the news to my sweet child, and try to provide for her, as best I could, the sort of unquestioned love and support that Jack gave me, all the twenty-four and a half years I was privileged to know him. He is the best example I could have had of a great many things: father, grandfather, husband, friend. We love you, John's dad, and we will do our best in this life to deserve the love you gave us.

09 January, 2008

piles of paper












Well, I'm ashamed to say I have nothing of any importance to tell you about from my grey, dismal town today. Aren't the first weeks after Christmas hard to recommend. All the boring things you (or at least I) shoved to the farthest corners of your desk in favour of receipts for glamorous presents, Christmas cards from farflung friends, invitations to concerts and parties... all those boring things come back to bite you in the bottom.

So Tuesday came, I dropped Avery off at school feeling somewhat forlorn as her straight little back walked up the steps, unbent by the enormous backpack full of her responsibilities. I came home, looked at my desk and thought, "I wonder what's under there?" and lifted up the giant file folder full of Christmas cards to find... all sorts of dreadful things I had neglected to do! School fees? Hadn't paid them (it's lucky they let her in the door). Had I signed her up for her school singing lessons? Nope. Or renewed her beloved Saturday acting class? Not exactly. Then there was the donation to the Moorland Mousie Trust that she was so keen to make, after her experiences on Exmoor. I hadn't seen that form in WEEKS. Never mind, off it went, along with insurance forms for last fall's doctor visits, and birthday cards for neglected chums, and all those recipes I cut out of magazines at Christmas? Whatever made me think I'd make "Stem Ginger and Cranberry Fudge"? I don't even have a sweet tooth! But there it was, along with instructions for making the Ghent altarpiece out of croquembouche. Well, I exaggerate, but that's the sort of holiday ambition that I never ever achieve, but always plan to around December 15.

What I'm not getting down to with any enthusiasm is my eventual driving test. I hope no traffic cop reads this blog, because I am definitely, but definitely super illegal. Would you believe that John gave me, for Christmas, two special books about traffic laws and parking regulations in London? Let the bells chime. But seriously, I have to buckle down. I am very lazy when he is away and almost never move the car from its prime parking spot. I tell myself I need the exercise and walk everywhere, but truly, it's just laziness and fear that I'll commit some minor infraction and my dirty little secret will be found out.

Avery's nerves are reaching something of a fever pitch about these dreadful exams, which begin on Friday and continue for the following two Fridays. To the powers-that-be in British girls' education: have the wretched things BEFORE Christmas, and have them three days in a row. Forget this dragging it out over three weeks. It's torture. Yesterday she actually told a taxi driver that it's impossible to be friends with one's schoolmates during January because if you think about it, "we're all competing for the same spots in school. So we sort of learn to not think about each other too much, until next month." Well, that's just awful!

I hate to think what I have contributed to this state of affairs, but actually I am pretty sure the answer is: not much. I really lack the competitive spirit necessary for the Olympic sport called "getting your child into the right school." First of all, I have very little conviction that there IS a "right school." Second, as soon as anything becomes a competition, I want to withdraw. This slacker attitude is in direct contrast to my husband's instant wish to turn everything into a contest, so between our influences I suppose Avery will come out normal. I hope.

Ah, well, at times like this you can but clear your desk, and cook some salmon. I'm quite sure all the Omega Whatever oils will increase her test scores by at least nought point something.

Tagliatelle with Salmon and Broccolini
(serves four)


1 1/2 lb organic fresh salmon (in one fillet if possible)
3 bay leaves
1 tsp Maldon sea salt
fresh ground pepper
3 tbsps creme fraiche
juice of half lemon
3/4 lb tagliatelle
large bunch (perhaps 8 stems?) tenderstem broccolini, cut in small pieces
1/2 cup light cream
salt to taste

In a baking dish lined with aluminium foil, lay the salmon skin side down. Lay the bay leaves across, then sprinkle with salt and pepper and smear (hate that word) the creme fraiche across the fillet with a butter knife. Sprinkle the lemon juice over all and bake at 425 degrees (about 215 celsius) for 25 minutes or until done in the middle, but not overdone!

Meanwhile, steam the broccolini just until it turns bright green and set aside.

At the same time, boil the tagliatelle for the recommended time (about 11 minutes, probably). Heat the light cream in the microwave or a little saucepan. Remove the salmon skin and the bay leaves from the baking dish and then break up the salmon into bite-size pieces with a fork. Toss gently with the tagliatelle, broccolini and warm cream and salt to taste.

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This is LOVELY. Of course you could always serve the broccolini in whole stems on the side if you like, but I like the green and pink of the salmon together. This is a hit with a child, believe it or not. Of course just to be perverse, Avery claims to prefer ordinary broccoli florets, just because I do not. So we have to compromise: sometimes one, sometimes the other. And interspersed with the Undisputed King of All Vegetables, the red pepper sauteed in olive oil.

Well, I just got a call from Avery's school informing me that my tuition cheque specified "2007." I do this on cheques all throughout the month of January, not from any evil desire to postpone payment for a couple of days, but because I just cannot get my mind around the new year in time for the first few bills. So I must rectify it and get ready for "Enchanted, Part Three," after school. Or rather "Enchanted, Part One, Seen for the Third Time." Sigh, the things we do for our children.

06 January, 2008

last day of the holiday













And the winner of the most expensive store in London in which to spend seven minutes: Riders and Squires! It is a lovely shop, I can't complain, but it's always a little stunning to walk in, choose four things and then just gulp. But Avery could barely stuff herself into her jodhpurs one more day, and shredded the fingers off one glove yesterday, so it was a necessary trip. The only tack shop in this horsey town, can you imagine? The most elegant horsey young girl sold us our essential items, dressed in what seems to be the uniform for the smart London 20-something lady: dark tights, ballet flats, a long shapeless t-shirt covered with an even longer and more shapeless belted cardigan, its sash trailing on the ground. Long untidy hair and a sort of languid, well-bred attitude that is the perfect demeanor for a girl surrounded by riding crops, polo mallets, velvet hats and the like. Doubtless she is called Jemma, Serena, Annabel, Victoria or some other blameless name for an English rose. "Mmm, yes, one does lose one's gloves, doesn't one? No point in buying really expensive gloves..."

This after a pleasant enough afternoon at the Queensway skating rink, where despite the Monday half-price arrangements, it was dead quiet. Perfect for Avery to practice her spins and whatever else without taking her life in her hands. We obsessively washed our hands all day as I am absolutely adamant that she not get this stomach virus that scarcely an hour goes but what I hear about another sufferer. It simply cannot happen. Until Friday afternoon at 2 p.m, after Avery's inaugural exam, that is. And preferably not at all. We repaired to the Mandarin Kitchen for a luxurious treat of lunch (a nice byproduct of the saintly gesture of watching her skate round and round for two hours), and chatted. So nice to have her all to myself! Sorry, John, but it's the one silver lining to your absence. I am quite selfish on that point.

I'm afraid it's left us with but little appetite for whatever I might come up with for dinner. Last night's offering yielded some leftovers, however, and the recipe is so good and so simple that it rates a second appearance here (I swear in 2008 I will invent a recipe index for you).

Roast Fillet of Beef With Herbs and Spices
(serves 4 hungry people easily)


1 kilo beef fillet, rolled and tied
1 tbsp each: Aleppo pepper (it's very mild but flavourful)
1 tbsp dried oregano
1 tbsp lemon pepper
1 tbsp sea salt (Maldon is and always will be the best)
lots of freshly ground black pepper
2 tbsps vegetable oil (not olive, it smokes too easily)

Rinse your fillet to make sure it can pick up the herb mixture, which you've mixed together and placed on a cookie sheet. Roll the fillet all over, helping the bits adhere if they don't go on their own, making sure the coating is even. Heat the oil in a large skillet until nearly smoking and sear the fillet all over, holding it with tongs (don't pierce it with a fork!) and turning it over till the whole thing is nicely browned. Then place in a baking dish and roast at around 350-375 degrees for about 35 minutes for rare, 45 for medium. Don't even think about cooking it any longer than that.

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The great thing about the leftovers is that I could easily toss them with some noodles and sprouts, or wrap them in pancakes, or make a sandwich with some sharp cheddar cheese and a red onion. And the place to go to get the fillet itself: hands-down it's Green Valley in Upper Berkeley Street just off Edgware Road, one of my absolute favorite places to shop for certain kinds of ingredients: anything Lebanese (the cucumbers are perfect: skinny and nearly seedless), fabulous olives, fresh (often still-warm) pita bread, and anything in the red-meat line. As usual, I found plenty of time-absorbing things to peruse in the various departments: has anyone ever eaten tinned "foul"? A sort of bean paste, it turns out, perhaps similar to hummous? Must give it a try someday. And I did succumb to a large wedge of something referred to only as "French white cheese," which I imagine will turn out to be sheeps milk cheese? It's reposing in my fridge awaiting... an appetite.

Well, the second half of "The Philadelphia Story" beckons, for my old-fashioned child. All our favorite lines: "Isn't it time for your milk and arsenic, darling?" and "Don't say 'stinks,' darling. If absolutely necessary 'smells,' but only if it's absolutely necessary." Avery said, "I like it, definitely, but I miss the sort of pointless bursting into song of 'High Society". Leaving her at school tomorrow will be a nasty blow.

04 January, 2008

don't you hate being a grownup?



















Well, it's deja vu all over again in my little London household: John has gone off to Iowa to help out his parents during a truly awful time. And instead of sinking down and worrying, dwelling on what cannot be changed, or any other self-indulgent thing, I must be... a grownup. Which means taking Avery once more to the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland and going on lots of sick-making rides, eating the hot dog you know will give you indigestion, listening to her enthusiastic account of the BEST ride ever on Smokey, the whole nine yards. At least the carousel was lovely, and so is she. Best to concentrate on the positive.

As well as being forced to feign interest in things I could not be less interested in (a third trip to see "Enchanted", anyone) I'm forced to acknowledge that I am... in charge. I cannot summon up any significant enthusiasm for this role! You'd think it would be kind of fun to be captain of the ship, with no other adult whose feelings needed to be taken into account before making decisions. Don't feel like fixing dinner? Throw some macaroni and cheese into a stockpot for your child and pour a cocktail! Don't feel like taking a shower? Never mind, there's no one to look at you! But alas, so far I am not feeling the joy. I'll have to think of some strategies to buck up, be brave, soldier on. I hate soldiering on.

Isn't it nasty, as well, when you think of picking up the phone to vent to one of your best friends, only... the bad thing is happening to one of your best friends. John's mother is always a perfect sounding board for all sorts of news, good and bad, but right now the last thing in the world she needs is a whingey, complaining daughter in law who can't seem to pull her socks up, take her finger out (I love these English expressions) and be... a grownup. Thankfully I can ring up my own mother, a woman who wrote the book on offering sympathy.

Let's see, before I buck myself up, I think a little energetic whingeing might be just what the doctor ordered. First up, I hate to drive in London! Forget the minor concern that I have no driver's license (except for the New York one with the really terrible photograph that carries precisely no authority here in my adopted land). John asked me to take him to Paddington to catch the Heathrow Express, and of course I was happy to do so. He loves to drive in London, so "taking him" meant sitting in the passenger seat as he negotiated all the insane traffic laws and insane other drivers. How icky to literally be in the driver's seat on the way home! How many thousands of times have I sat in the passenger seat while he purrs down the Bishop's Bridge Road and onto the roundabout? And yet was I ABSOLUTELY sure which exit to take to get to Edgware Road? Of course not! That would be like being a grownup!

Still and all, I made it home and parked with about an inch and a half to spare. I am a BRILLIANT parallel parker, for which I fully intend to pat myself on the back all afternoon. I remembered to lock the car. I had remembered my front-door key. Well done me. John's been gone a whole half hour and I haven't destroyed anything yet.

OK, second up for whingeing: Avery's exam schedule. Somehow all the paperwork, all the bossy, peremptory and snooty letters from the various schools, all the absorption of Avery's annoyance at exam prep, none of these things convinced me that January 2008 would actually arrive and the *&^% exams would really turn up on the calendar page. Well, the other shoe has dropped and here we are. I printed out a large calendar for just January, wrote all the exam times and locations, all the interview times and locations, and taped it to the refrigerator door. Ha! I will not be defeated. Would you believe: each of the three exams has 1) a different start time, 2) different school supplies required, and 3) a different pickup time? If I don't take her to the wrong school or try to pick her up from the wrong one at the wrong time it will be a miracle. How do people with more than one child ever manage? Or people with a job, for that matter?

Sigh. Avery is, of course, her normal intrepid self, saying goodbye quite calmly to her father, much more concerned with what beverage I had packed in her barn lunch for today than any pesky grownup concerns WE might have. More power to her, I say. School starts day after tomorrow and I have announced quite categorically that bedtime tonight will NOT include any whingeing about jetlag or anything else. I have cornered the market on whingeing and I'm not giving up my spot for anyone.

What to cook for dinner? Certainly NOT the extremely fashionable, spicy and delectable lunch I made earlier in the week. Too fashionable. I need comfort food. But you should try it, especially if parallel parking and school interviews are not part of your January.

Spicy Seared Tuna with Wasabi Dressing
(serves two)

2 tuna steaks, the VERY best quality you can get
2 tsps each: prepared wasabi, miso paste, lime juice, soy sauce
1/2 tsp ground ginger

Can you get prepared wasabi and miso paste where you live? I don't know. But you can order them. Just follow the links.

Mix all the marinade ingredients together and pour over the tuna steaks on a large plate. Turn the steaks over to coat both sides. Marinate for at least an hour, or even overnight.

Heat a nonstick skillet as hot as you can (within reason) and plop the tuna steaks into it, then pour the marinade over the top. Sear on one side for 1 minute, then turn and sear the other side for 1 minute. Place on top of a salad of rocket, watercress, avocado and halved baby tomatoes and top with a dressing of exactly the same proportions as the marinade, with a tablespoon of sunflower, safflower or any other mild oil added.

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Well, let's see. What to accomplish while John is away? Such scintillating responsibilities as ordering the autumn's pictures from iPhoto and getting up to date on my photo albums, finding an upholsterer to repair Keechie's damage to both the sofa and the living room bench (ouch), making sure Avery washes her hands every 42 seconds to avoid getting the monster stomach virus that's making its way across the UK. That would really tear it, wouldn't it? No vomiting during the exams, definitely not! Fingers crossed.

I've decided the better part of valour would be to walk to the barn to pick her up, instead of weaving my way uncertainly through the minefield of London traffic one more time today. Besides, anyone who thinks I'm giving up that parking spot can think again. And any extra good vibrations you had to send to Iowa would be much, much appreciated...